Don’t Rule Microsoft Out of the Digital Assistant Race

on October 25, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last week, after a few months of wait, Invoke, the Harman Cardon’ Smart speaker with Cortana became available. Reviews trickled in, and they were not particularly kind. Most of the commentary focused on how the Invoke is not any better than some of its competitors especially for $199. This would have probably been ok, had Microsoft brought the product to market a year ago, but given the timing, people were expecting more.

I had the opportunity to use the Invoke for a few days, and I too was left wanting more from Cortana. I looked at what Microsoft knows about me, which is quite a lot given I live most of my day in Office 365, use Skype for all my international calls and have the Cortana app on my phone. I wanted more. I wanted Cortana to use all that info to deliver a differentiated experience.

I don’t have actual complaints about the hardware. While it is big, it fits quite well in our family room décor. The sound is better than the original Echo and Google Home. Cortana understood me well, and it was quite impressive how well she could follow me when playing music loudly. I tried making a few calls, and while I had no issues I had to remind myself, I could indeed use Invoke for calls as it was not a feature that addressed a particular pain of a current behavior.

While Cortana has been available on PCs and on Android phones and iPhones for years, she does not have many skills available. Similarly to when app stores became available, skills are developed for assistants that have users. So, the range of things I could do with the Invoke and Cortana was relatively limited especially with respect to controlling my smart home.

The Pressure of Being in the Game

Sometimes, the pressure of not being seen as ignoring a market forces you to get into it before you are ready. While the body of the Invoke was ready and competitive, its soul was not. For Harman, a manufacturer that supports all assistants on its speakers, the risk was minimal. There is, after all, a Microsoft fan base out there that might be interested in this first step into the smart speaker business. So why not make a Cortana-enabled-speaker to get those users. I would guess that when it came to assuring production costs and marketing costs were covered, they negotiated well with their partner.

For Microsoft, however, this was a much more significant risk. It was the first step in a very hot market. All eyes were on them, especially after a few appearances of the Invoke on stage at Build and Ignite. The general perception is that Microsoft is late compared to the other big vendors. Of course, that is not technically correct considering Apple has yet to ship HomePod. Yet, the product was announced and demoed, and that is enough to consider Apple in the game. There is no question that this holiday season will be all about smart speakers, so the stakes for having a Cortana product on the shelves were high for Microsoft. 

Being Late Does Not Mean Microsoft is Ignoring the Segment

When you are one of the biggest names in the market, it is often the case that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some of the commentaries on the Invoke criticized Microsoft for wanting to do too much and lacking focus. Others criticized Microsoft for ignoring the digital assistant space in the same way they did mobile.

I believe Microsoft must be in the digital assistant space. From an ecosystem perspective, voice first interfaces are connected to an assistant whether you want it or not. Just look at Samsung and how their initial positioning of Bixby as an interface, not an assistant, fell flat. More importantly, though, ambient computing will be heavily reliant on an assistant and Microsoft must be in the ambient computing space. The big question for Microsoft is how do they want to be in the space and on an even more fundamental level, what do they see this space to be.

Cortana has been improving steadily. Many commands on your PC are now Cortana enabled and developers can add Cortana enabled controls to their apps. Cortana even sets up your new PC for you as she leads the ‘out of the box’ experience with Windows 10 Creators. Cortana has of course been able to help you with reminders, calendaring, searches for a while but if you, like many, don’t like using voice with your PC you would not know. And this is the core of the issue.

Microsoft owns all the critical ingredients to a good digital assistant: an OS, a cloud back-end, voice and language technology, a search engine. They also have the best understanding of users in the workplace giving them the opportunity to do with Cortana what they did with the PC: get us to bring it home with us. I believe the most significant opportunity for Microsoft in the digital assistant world rests on helping us blend our work and home time. Just because Microsoft did not do that out of the box with Invoke, it does not mean they can’t or they won’t.

When it comes to the next Cortana device, I hope Microsoft will take a page from the Surface team’s book and focus on what they can do internally rather than looking at what everybody else is doing on their products.

I said before that the digital assistant race is not a sprint but a marathon and being first out of the post does not necessarily assure you will be first over the finish line. Sometimes slow and steady wins. I am not arguing Microsoft will win, but I am making a point they have a role to play.